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Five Great Ways to Overcome Dissertation Inertia  | Issue 262

Summary: Overcoming dissertation inertia can be tough—but our positive psychology strategies will get and keep you moving.
Estimated reading time: About 5 minutes (and once you get started, you'll gain momentum).


By Gayle Scroggs, Ph.D., P.C.C., and Diane Dreher, PhD, PCC

"An object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion." – Isaac Newton's First Principle 


How will Newton's First Principle—a.k.a. The Law of Inertia—affect your dissertation progress in 2020? 

First, let's consider why inertia strikes you as a doctoral student. Beginning in kindergarten, others provided you with external structures to guide your progress with predetermined schedules of classes, exams, deadlines, and vacations. Frequent grades and promotions offered you feedback and motivation.

Writing your dissertation may be the first time you've been expected to create your own momentum. Luckily, it's easier to keep moving once you get rolling. 

If you've been stuck in dissertation inertia, you know that getting going can be tough! It's easier to procrastinate with tempting timewasters and low-hanging fruit. How much time did you distract yourself with social and streaming media? How many times did you decide to do Anything-But-Dissertation on your To Do list? 

If you are ready to make substantial progress on or finish your dissertation, you need to wake up to the underlying challenge—learning to structure your work to create positive momentum to finish your dissertation. As you do, take heart knowing that once you get moving, you will keep moving. 

To help you overcome your inertia, we've culled five top strategies supported by positive psychology that will get your dissertation engine humming in no time. 


1. Build your writing habit by starting small. 

Don't beat yourself up because you find it difficult to sit down and write consistently. Just commit to getting better at it by growing the amount of time you devote to it, just as a novice runner prepares for her first marathon by first getting used to shorter daily laps. 

What's the daily minimum you can commit to for the first week? Choose your starting level. 

Now block out the specific time on your calendar, whether it is thirty minutes or several hours, two days a week or every day. Calendarizing your plan doubles the likelihood of follow through, research shows. 

Use a habit-tracking sheet posted in a highly visible spot to record your sessions. Inject some fun with bright markers or silly stickers. Be sure to pat yourself on the back for your streaks and level up in small increments. 

Key point: To build a habit, showing up consistently matters more than output. 

"People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures."
~ F. M. Alexander


2. Be strategic about when you work.

The time you work on your dissertation matters. We each have our own circadian rhythms, times when we're more alert and times we're not. 

Many successful academics make it a point to do their important work during their "prime time," often first thing in the morning, before the day gets cluttered with commitments and interruptions. Routine tasks such as email and bills fall into the mid-afternoon "lag time." 

When is your own "prime time" for working on your dissertation? Are you a night owl or a morning lark? Test yourself and read more here. How can you create an opening to work on your dissertation during your own "prime time"? 


Key point: It's more about making the time than finding the time. Schedule it during your most alert period. 

"The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule but to schedule your priorities." ~ Stephen Covey 


3. Design your environment to maximize energy and focus.


The space where you work on your dissertation can block or support your momentum. 

Stacks of papers and books and disorganized files can easily trigger procrastination. The sight of overflowing laundry baskets or piles of student essays to grade can also pull one off task. 

One ABD organized her articles and notes in a filing crate with colorful hanging files, one for each section of her dissertation. Seeing this bright visual symbol of her dissertation whenever she walked into the room prompted her to continue moving forward. 

Meanwhile, others keep everything they need at hand, including a dissertation folder on their computer desktop, making it easier to get started each day. 

Key point: Minimize barriers to getting started and gaining speed while emphasizing those that facilitate your momentum. 

"Clutter isn't just the stuff on the floor. It's anything that gets between you and the life you want to be living." ~ Peter Walsh 



4. Manage your moods as well as your time.

Do you avoid your dissertation because just thinking about how little you've done provokes shame or fear? 

When you fritter away time instead of doing what really matters, you are letting a bad mood rather than your intentions dictate your behavior. You fall further behind—and end up feeling worse. 

The truth is that accomplishing a big goal requires navigating through emotional as well as other channels. To steer yourself successfully, the first step is to pause and notice your experience. Instead of running away from your negative thoughts and beliefs, practice this "Triple A" mindfulness exercise: 

  • Awareness. Sit still, comfortable yet alert, with eyes closed. Notice thoughts as they arise: Are they telling me to ditch my work and do something easier or more fun? Check in on your emotions: Do I feel anxious, frustrated, tense, bored, or other? Do these emotions feel intolerable to me? Finally, note any body sensations, especially in the head, neck, chest, and stomach. 

  • Allowing. Instead of pushing your inner experiences aside by jumping into action, take a deep breath and allow yourself to acknowledge and accept them. Name them. Examine them (but don't analyze). Comfort yourself with a kind word or perhaps rest your hand over your heart. 

  • Action. Now choose to do what is in your long-term best interest. 


Key point: Have your emotions—don't let them have you. 

"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." ~ Viktor Frankl 


5. Identify and Connect with Your Success Team.

Beware the temptation to isolate yourself—yet choose your companions intentionally. Spend time with those who believe in your dream while avoiding those who drain you. Don't hesitate to ask peers for help and feedback—and offer them yours in return. Some find it helpful to start or join a writing group, and others find a single dissertation buddy works. 

Consider what other kinds of assistance would benefit you, from babysitters to stat consultants. Some find a dissertation coach helpful. 

Be sure to make time for fun with friends and family because positive experiences enhance energy, creativity, and even your physical immunity. Lastly, identify with faculty or non-academics who could be instrumental for your post-graduation plans, then make or strengthen connections with them. 

Key point: Successful doctoral students know that no one does this alone. 

"Asking for help isn't weak, it's a great example of how to take care of yourself." ~ Charlie Brown

Did you notice that these recommendations focus on the who, what, where, when, and how of dissertating? Following them will create the momentum you need to finish your dissertation sooner and move on to your post-graduation life. You'll also be taking with you great habits and a positive outlook to make sure you flourish as Dr. You! 

"Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."

~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



GAYLE SCROGGS, Ph.D., P.C.C., positive psychology coach, speaker, and educator, helps clients to develop positivity, strengths, habits, and focus to overcome inner and outer obstacles to success and well-being. Editor of the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. For coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in academia or your career, contact her at Also enjoy free resources at


DIANE DREHER, Ph.D. is a positive psychology coach, college professor, and author of the best-selling Tao of Inner Peace. Drawing upon insights from Eastern philosophy and strategies from positive psychology, Diane's coaching helps people find greater balance in challenging times, discover their strengths, and chart a successful path to achieve their goals. Visit her Psychology Today blog and her web sites,  and Contact her at


If you are considering whether to get your own coach to help you reach your academic goals, fill out this brief application for a free consultation with a dissertation coach.

An accomplished coach, workshop leader, keynote speaker, and educator, Gayle earned her doctorate in social psychology from the University of New Hampshire. Her deep expertise in positive psychology allows her to help clients build their personal strengths, positive habits, and confidence to overcome procrastination, self-doubts and other blocks in order to reach vital academic and personal goals. In addition to editing the ABD Survival Guide, she contributed two chapters to the positive psychology anthology, Women's Paths to Happiness. Contact her at for coaching, presentations, and workshops on thriving in graduate school and beyond, and find free resources

BEN DEAN, Publisher, ABDSG
Ben holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. He began writing the ABDSG in 1997. Over the years, the ABDSG has published hundreds of articles and provided thousands of hours of pro bono coaching and teleworkshops to ABDs all over the world. Ben is also the founder of MentorCoach (, a virtual university focused on training accomplished professionals to become part-time or full-time coaches. You may wish to subscribe to the Coaching Toward Happiness eNewsletter! It's on applying the science of Positive Psychology to your work and life (131,000 readers). Ben lives in suburban Maryland with his wife, Janice, their two children, and Dusty, their Norwegian dwarf bunny.



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